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Low back pain is one of the most common problems people have. About 60 - 80% of the adult U.S. population has low back pain, and it is the second most common reason people go to the doctor. Low back problems affect the spine's flexibility, stability, and strength, which can cause pain, discomfort, and stiffness.
Back pain is the leading cause of disability in Americans under 45 years old. Each year 13 million people go to the doctor for chronic back pain. The condition leaves about 2.4 million Americans chronically disabled and another 2.4 million temporarily disabled.
Most back pain can be prevented by keeping your back muscles strong and making sure you practice good mechanics (like lifting heavy objects in a way that won’t strain your back).
Signs and Symptoms
Symptoms of low back pain may include:
What Causes It?
Low back pain is usually caused by and injury -- strain from lifting, twisting, or bending. However, in rare cases low back pain can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as an infection, a rheumatic or arthritic condition, or a tumor.
A ruptured or bulging disk -- the strong, spongy, gel-filled cushions that lie between each vertebra -- and compression fractures of the vertebra, caused by osteoporosis, can also cause low back pain. Arthritis can cause the space around the spinal cord to narrows (called spinal stenosis), leading to pain.
Risk factors for back pain include age, smoking, being overweight, being female, being anxious or depressed, and either doing physical work or sedentary work.
What to Expect at Your Provider's Office
Often your doctor will be able to diagnose your back pain with a physical exam. Your doctor will ask you to stand, sit, and move. Your doctor will check your reflexes and perhaps your response to touch, slight heat, or a pinprick. Depending on what your doctor finds, other tests may include an X-ray, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan, a bone scan, and computed tomography (CT) scan.
In many cases back pain will get better with self-care. You should see your doctor if you pain doesn’t get better within 72 hours. You can lower your risk of back problems by exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, and practicing good posture. Learning to bend and lift properly, sleeping on a firm mattress, sitting in supportive chairs, and wearing low-heeled shoes are other important factors. Although you may need to rest your back for a little while, staying in bed for several days tends to make back pain worse.
For long-term back pain, your doctor may recommend stronger medications, physical therapy, or surgery. Most people will not need surgery for back pain.
Medications used to treat low back pain include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (Aleve), muscle relaxants such as carisoprodol (Soma), and steroids such as prednisone. Your doctor may prescribe opiates such as hydrocodone (Lortab, Vicodin) for short-term use. An injection of a corticosteroid (cortisone shot) may also help decrease inflammation.
Complementary and Alternative Therapies
Alternative therapies can help ease muscle tension, correct posture, relieve pain, and prevent long-term back problems by improving muscle strength and joint stability. Many people find pain relief by using hot and cold packs on the sore area. Special exercises, such as ones designed for your specific problem by a physical therapist, can help strengthen your core abdominal muscles and your back muscles, reducing pain and making your back stronger.
Nutrition and Dietary Supplements
There is no special diet for back pain, but you can help keep your body in good shape by eating a healthy diet with lots of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. Choose foods that are low in saturated fat and sugar. Drink plenty of water.
Foods that are high in antioxidants (such as green leafy vegetables and berries) may help fight inflammation.
Avoid caffeine and other stimulants, alcohol, and tobacco.
Exercise moderately at least 30 minutes daily, 5 days a week. Get your health care provider to okay you for exercise before starting a regimen.
These supplements may help fight inflammation and pain:
Herbs are generally available as standardized, dried extracts (pills, capsules, or tablets), teas, or tinctures/liquid extracts (alcohol extraction, unless otherwise noted). Mix liquid extracts with favorite beverage. Dose for teas is 1 - 2 heaping teaspoonfuls/cup water steeped for 10 - 15 minutes (roots need longer).
Although very few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, professional homeopaths may consider the following treatments to relieve low back pain based on their knowledge and experience. Before prescribing a remedy, homeopaths take into account a person's constitutional type -- your physical, emotional, and psychological makeup. An experienced homeopath assesses all of these factors when determining the most appropriate treatment for each individual.
Some of the most common remedies for this condition are listed below:
Contrast hydrotherapy -- alternating hot and cold -- may help. Alternate 3 minutes hot with 1 minute cold. Repeat three times to complete one set. Do two to three sets per day.
Castor Oil Packs
Apply oil directly to skin, cover with a clean soft cloth and plastic wrap. Place a heat source over the pack and let sit for 30 - 60 minutes. Repeat this procedure for 3 consecutive days.
Reviews of clinical studies have found that acupuncture may be effective for low back pain. In addition, acupuncturists frequently report success in treating low back pain, and the National Institutes of Health recommend acupuncture as a reasonable treatment option. An acupuncturist may use a comprehensive approach including specialized massage, warming herbal oils, and patient education.
Treating low back pain with acupuncture can be complex because many meridians (including the kidney, bladder, liver, and gallbladder) affect this area of the body. Treatment of the painful areas and related sore points is often done as well, with needles or moxibustion (burning the herb mugwort over specific acupuncture points).
A study using acupuncture to treat 1,162 patients with a history of chronic low back pain found that at 6 months, low back pain was better after acupuncture treatment -- almost twice as better than from conventional therapy. Patients had ten 30-minute acupuncture sessions, generally two sessions per week.
According to a comprehensive review conducted by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, spinal manipulation and NSAIDs are the two most effective treatments for acute low back pain. Of these, only spinal manipulation was judged to both relieve pain and restore function. Spinal manipulation also appears to be effective for chronic low back pain, but the evidence is less conclusive.
Massage may help treat and prevent short and long-term back problems.
Yoga and Tai Chi
There is evidence that suggests that the mind-body practices of yoga and tai chi offer significant relief of the symptoms of low back pain.
Chronic low back problems can interfere with everyday activities, sleep, and concentration. Severe symptoms may affect mood and sexuality. Chronic pain is also associated with depression, which can in turn make chronic pain worse.
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Review Date: 1/20/2012
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network.
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